Sens, Bruins, and Panthers; the Race for the Last Eastern Conference Playoff Spot

Posted: 03/22/2015 by levcohen in Hockey

A few weeks ago, I didn’t think I’d ever be writing this post. For most of the season, the Boston Bruins held the comfortable lead in the race for the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Given that they also have the most talent and experience of any team competing for the last wild card spot, it seemed likely that the Bruins would pull away. But this time a month ago, the Bruins had lost seven in a row and picked up just two points in that time. Suddenly, the Panthers and Flyers, the latter of whom had picked up 18 points in their last 12 games, were closing in on the Bruins. I was about to write a post about the suddenly-enthralling race for the eighth seed, but I was halted by Boston’s convincing 6-2 win over the Blackhawks in Chicago. I figured that the big win over Chicago would lift the Bruins, and I was right; they picked up 15 points in their next nine games (7-1-1). At that point, the Bruins had 82 points, the surging Ottawa Senators had 77, and the Panthers had 76. It wasn’t over, but it was pretty close. Since then, though, the Bruins have picked up just two points, both in shootout losses, in four games. Two of those losses came against the teams directly behind them in the standings. Meanwhile, Ottawa, 3-0-0 since the Bruins’ tailspin began, is on an absolute tear; they have won six straight and are 14-1-1 in their last 16. And Florida, who dropped four straight near the end of February, have rebounded to post a 6-3-1 record in the month of March. With all that said, here’s where we stand right now:
Boston: 84 points, 72 games played
Ottawa: 83 points, 71 games played
Florida: 80 points, 72 games played

With just 10 games left for Boston and Florida and 11 for Ottawa, now’s the perfect time to handicap this race.

The first thing to mention is that Boston and Florida still have two matchups against each other in the final three weeks of the season. Given that both of the games between the two have gone into overtime, those two should be thrilling games that will help determine who makes the playoffs. Florida also has a game in Ottawa, while the Senators do not play the Bruins again this season. I’ll start with the team I still think has the best chance to make the playoffs, the Boston Bruins:

You would think that a team led by two-way center Patrice Bergeron, scoring wing Brad Marchand, bruising wing Milan Lucic, skilled, 6’9 defender Zdeno Chara, and top-echelon goalie Tuukka Rask would be comfortably in the playoffs. It hasn’t happened, though, for a number of reasons. First and probably foremost, Chara, the team’s leader and best player over their many playoff runs over the past decade, has declined steeply. In 5-on-5 play, his points/60 minutes is just .57, down from .87 last year and 1.15 three years ago in his prime. So he’s contributing half as many points per 60 minutes when both teams are full strength, which is meaningful considering he plays well over 20 minutes per game. His power play stats look even worse; his 2.31 points per 60 on the power play is a full two points lower than any other Bruin defender and 59th of 67 defenders with at least 100 minutes on the power play. Chara averaged 5.02 points per 60 on the power play last year and 5.22 three seasons ago. It can be argued that he is the biggest reason that Boston’s power play has declined from 21.7% last year (third in the league) to 17.7% this season (19th). The biggest indicator that something’s wrong with the 38-year-old Chara is his +/-. After he posted a +25 last season, +14 two years ago in 48 games, and +33 in each of the two years before that, he’s at -1 this year. That’s a huge decline for the team’s #1 defenseman and indicates that he just hasn’t been effective this season. Overall, Boston is still a talented team, but they are nowhere near as good with the new Chara. They are 11th in Corsi for at 51.7%, which is still ahead of Florida (51.1%) and Ottawa (50.3%).
Schedule: Boston’s next three games are super tough: @Tampa Bay (95 pts), vs Anaheim (99 pts), vs Rangers (97 pts). In all, the Bruins have six games against surefire playoff teams, two against the Panthers, and two against cellar-dwellars in their final 10. Not too easy.
Chances: 45%

Where did Ottawa come from? This was a team that finished tied for 10th in the Eastern Conference last year with 88 points and were on their way to nabbing a top five pick… and then they started winning. And winning. And winning. Most of the plaudits should and will go to stud defenseman Erik Karlsson. Karlsson has a team-leading 58 points while playing 27 minutes per game, third most in the NHL. But 22-year-old Mark Stone, who played just 19 games last season, has exploded onto the scene, picking up 50 points in 69 games and posting a +15. And 25-year-old Mike Hoffman, who scored just three goals last season, leads the team with 25 goals this year and a +20 this year. But nobody’s stepped up more than goalie Andrew Hammond, who has taken over the starting job over the last month and is an amazing 13-0-1 with a .947 save percentage. No offense to Craig Anderson or Robin Lehner, both of are good goalies, the Senators would not be in the position that they are in without Hammond. Their chances in the last few weeks depends on whether Hammond can keep up his outstanding play, because if he can, the Senators, who are +19 on the season, better than both Boston (+5) and Florida (-20), have a great shot at making the playoffs.
Schedule: The Senators have one game left against the Western Conference, and luckily get a struggling team (San Jose). Like Boston, six of their final 10 games are against surefire Eastern Conference playoff teams, and they also have a game against Florida. The final three games are against dead-to-rights Toronto (x2) and Philadelphia, so, combined with their game in hand, it’s fair to say that their schedule is slightly easier than Boston’s.
Chances: 40%

Roberto Luongo came back at the perfect time, didn’t he? Luongo, who was injured against Buffalo at the end of February, is back after missing eight games. His first two games back? 3-1 and 2-1 wins in which he posted a .960 save percentage. Pretty good. With Luongo back in the net and the aforementioned two games left against the Bruins, the Panthers have a chance to sneak into the playoffs. They’ll need the Senators to slow down and the Bruins to continue to drop points, but it’s certainly more possible than it seemed when Luongo got injured. The Panthers are a very young team, as their leading scorers are 22, 21, 31, and 19 years old. And that 19-year-old, Aaron Ekblad, is having quite the season. He’s in the Calder trophy (given to the top rookie) mix, which is amazing when considering that he’s a teenage defenseman, which is about the most difficult position to be in. But put the heroics of Ekblad and Luongo aside and you’ll find a very flawed team who were bad enough to have the #1 pick in last year’s draft (Ekblad). I think Florida is the worst team of the three, but they also have the hottest goalie right now in Luongo, and that can mean everything.
Schedule: 4 games against Eastern Conference playoff teams, two against Boston, one against Ottawa, three against non-playoff teams. The friendliest of the three, since they have just four games against surefire playoff teams and three chances to pick up points against Boston and Ottawa.

This is a race that, somewhat improbably, seems likely to come down to the final game or two. Boston is still in the lead, but barely, and Ottawa has a game in hand. My guess is still that Boston will come out victorious, but it’s almost a coin-flip at this point.

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